In P. J. Vernon‘s Bath Haus, Oliver Park, a recovering addict from Indiana, has everything he ever wanted: sobriety and a loving, wealthy partner in Nathan, a prominent trauma surgeon. Despite their difference in age and disparate backgrounds, they’ve made a perfect life together. With everything to lose, Oliver shouldn’t be visiting Haus, a gay bathhouse. Inside, he follows a man into a private room. Everything goes wrong, and Oliver barely escapes with his life.
He races home in full-blown terror as the hand-shaped bruise grows dark on his neck. The truth will destroy Nathan and everything they have together, so Oliver does the thing he used to do so well: he lies.
What follows is a classic runaway-train narrative, full of the exquisite escalations, edge-of-your-seat thrills, and oh-my-god twists.
The New York Times called it “[An] adrenaline-soaked pulse-pounder” and O, The Oprah Magazine defined it as “A nightmarish white-knuckler.”
PJ recently answered my questions about his hotly anticipated new thriller, Bath Haus.
SG: I admire how much pain/fear/scary situations you put Oliver through. Did you ever think, “Is this too much?” Or, are you, like me, a sadist toward your characters?
PJ: Ha! Usually, other folks have to tell me when I’ve gone too far! Readers are incredibly sharp, and thriller fans expect the pain, the fear, the high-stakes conflict. They know when you’ve flinched. When you’ve held back because you, the author, aren’t quite in the headspace to present a situation in all its horrifying scope. From the action on the page to the emotional fallout and everything in between. I might spend hours crafting a brutal scene that leaves me (and poor Oliver) gutted, but all readers get are a good few pages and no reason to stop turning ‘em!
SG: This novel is told from two points of view. That of Oliver and his partner, Nathan. Why did you choose to tell it this way?
PJ: Funny enough, early drafts included only Oliver’s POV. And yes, Bath Haus is Oliver’s story, but as Nathan would say, “this is our [meaning his and Oliver’s] journey.” And of course, it very much is. When I spent time in Nathan’s head, listening to music Nathan loves and thinking through how and why he navigates the world as he does, his character became powerfully layered. Without Nathan’s guidance and advocacy, Oliver will die. That’s his truth. Those are his stakes before the story even starts–and I think that’s why his character pops.
SG: Nathan and Oliver aren’t married, a point that gets referenced by Nathan’s mother, the police detective investigating Oliver’s attack, and several other characters. Why did you choose to make this such an important part of the story?
PJ: So much of Oliver and Nathan is inextricably tied to inertia. They experience their relationship through a lens of stagnation. Scripted romance. Tepid, infrequent sex. Questionable, misguided emotional attachment. Yet neither is prepared to change this, or at the very least, to communicate honestly, candidly. They’ve reached a co-dependent equilibrium, and this extends to the symbolic. Wedding rings but no wedding. A shared house but no real home. The foundation of their relationship rests on unstable ground. Which is fine—as long as life unfolds perfectly. If not? Well, that’s the book.
I also wanted interrogate notions of normative, cis-het marriage through a queer lens. A right withheld from us for so long, yet there’s still a palpable pressure to conform to its mores and ideals. Nathan fixates on these, which is why they wear rings. The fidelity, the loyalty, and most importantly, staking a claim to another person. Oliver, on the other hand, hasn’t had the chance to determine what marriage means to him personally. The result, a “are-they-or-aren’t-they-married” dynamic primed to fail. Catastrophically so.
SG: Are there are scenes/characters you cut from the final manuscript that you still remember fondly and wish they’d survived editing?
PJ: No, but not because my early drafts aren’t shitty. Oh, they are a certified mess. I’m simply an underwriter. Meaning, my projects read like screenplays with barely-there dramatic beats in the early stages. I do a lot of new writing during revision. Character’s get meat on their bones. Conflict and atmosphere and world-building are strengthened. Writing is revising! Bath Haus grew by 20k words during edits. So actually, I have scenes and characters I love that didn’t exist until revisions. What do we call these? Newborn Darlings?
SG: Oliver’s partner, Nathan, has an overbearing mother who does not approve of Oliver. I loved her.
PJ: Kathy Klein is by far my most beloved “newborn darling”. She’s Joan Crawford, Lucille Bluth, Karen Walker, and Cersei Lannister all rolled into one fabulously horrible human being. She’s a puff adder in Alexander McQueen, and I love her so much.
SG: The use of phone apps to spy on others, to secret information away, and to track people, was fantastic. You managed to integrate technology into the story without resorting to having a character be an advanced hacker. Did you know all about this topic before you began writing? Related: you may never use my phone.
PJ: What I wouldn’t give to say I’m a tech wiz with his finger on the pulse of today’s most innovative creations. To wax poetic about the cost convenience exacts. To share insights about connectivity and how technology both brings us together and pushes us apart. All of this would be a lie.
My husband and I did long-distance for a couple years. He lived in Europe. I lived stateside. We communicated by DMs. At some point, Zuckerberg threw geo-tags on Facebook messages and forgot to personally let me know. One day, while I told him I was “grabbing a quick bite from Whole Foods”, Messenger decided to share that said reply originated from a Wendy’s parking lot. Basically, I get caught by technology constantly. Our doorbell cam is a video library of me slipping on ice to grab an Uber, hitting my head on a tree branch because I can’t put my goddamn phone in my pocket, and other clumsy hijinks and shenanigans. Why not crank the stakes and toss these humiliating moments into a story?
P. J. Vernon was born in South Carolina. Called a “rising star thriller writer” by Library Journal, Vernon’s debut, When You Find Me, was both an Audible Plus #1 Listen and Associated Press Top Ten U.S. Audiobook. His next novel, Bath Haus, releases June 15, 2021 from Doubleday. He lives in Calgary with his husband and two wily dogs.